On Dec. 30, 1999, while the world nervously awaited Y2K, Tiger Woods quietly celebrated Y24. He dined with family and friends it a hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., and by midnight—when his birthday expired—he was already in bed. Across the country, at his home in Windermere, Fla., it was even quieter. The only sound was me restless lowing of crystal and silver in his overcrowded trophy case.
Woods is an adult now. He no longer binges on Big Macs but fills up with fresh fruit and yogurt. He maintains a close and affectionate relationship with his parents, but his score doesn't soar anymore when Earl Woods gets sick or Kultida overcooks dinner. He seems less dependent on the entourage of college pals and hangers-on who kept him amused in his rookie and second PGA Tour seasons. "As I get older and my friends get older, we each have more of our own lives," he says. With this difference: Tiger's life is a bit more compelling than theirs.
He proved that again last week on Maui by defeating a select field of 1999 Tour winners at the Mercedes Championships, the first Tour event of the 21st century, give or take a calendrical quibble. His two-hole playoff victory over Ernie Els—his fifth consecutive Tour win—eclipsed Ben Hogan's winning streak of 1953, pulled him to within one of Hogan's '48 skein of six and kept alive the fanciful notion that Woods can equal Byron Nelson's record 11-tournament streak of '45, when the greens were much slower and pterodactyls ruled the sky.
Even before Woods polished off Els and the 28 others in the field with one of the strongest finishing kicks in history (he made an eagle and two birdies on the last three holes), the air of resignation was palpable. Tiger's colleagues sighed deeply, shook their heads, and said he was "on a roll...in the zone...almost unbeatable." Before the third round, two caddies were overheard talking outside the clubhouse at the Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course. "Is it going to rain?" one asked, watching dark clouds tumble down the mountain slopes toward the sea and Molokai.
"Yeah, but it won't rain on Tiger," the other replied. "It never rains on Tiger."
Instead, Tiger reigns. On Sunday afternoon he stood next to Els on the 18th tee, staring grimly down a fairway that curves seaward like the grand staircase of an antebellum mansion. The two were tied at 14 under par, and Woods had just given up a one-stroke lead by lipping out a 10-foot par putt on 17. An hour later a baffled Els sat in a chair with his hands behind his head—a brilliant runner-up. He said, "Winning seems to be a habit with Tiger right now."
For some time now, to be more accurate. Last Saturday night, in a ballroom at the Kapalua Ritz-Carlton, the Tour presented Woods statuettes of Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus. The Palmer trophy goes to the Tour's leading money winner (Woods won an astonishing $6.6 million in 1999, almost $3 million more than runner-up David Duval). The Nelson goes to the player with the lowest adjusted scoring average (Tiger's was a record-low 68.43 in '99). The Nicklaus goes to the player of the year (Woods won the vote of his peers for the second time in three years). Looking elegant in a dark suit and gray tie, Woods made some gracious remarks, posed for photographs and then left. He was in bed by 11.
It would encourage the other players to see Woods slip his self-imposed leash. Duval, who finished third at Kapalua, arrived on Maui looking as if a stonecutter had carved him new glutes and abs for Christmas. "Hey," Duval said, "if you want to beat Tiger, you have to get better." Els, the preternaturally relaxed South African with two U.S. Open titles on his r�sum�, trailed Woods by four after two rounds. Asked if he thought he could still win, Els laughed and correctly predicted, "It all depends on what Tiger does."
These days Tiger does whatever it takes to sustain his success. He hasn't given up video games, and he's still coltish enough to start an on-the-course snowball fight with a rival, as he did on Jan. 2 with Sergio Garcia. But in December, in what's now an annual practice, Woods went with his mother to a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, where he meditated. ("I observe everything but know nothing," he said in a pre-Christmas phone call to a reporter, sounding eerily like David Carradine in an old Rung Fu episode.) His favorite word is balance, which he's always seeking, but it could just as well be paradox. His work ethic and passion for technical analysis are thoroughly Western, yet he sees himself more as a Zen master. "I don't think about things that much," he says. "I watch, I absorb and then I follow instinct."
Opposed to this almost feral mind-set is Tiger's acute sense of his place in history. After he appeared as a presenter at the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 20th Century Sports Awards in New York City in December, Woods stood with Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and 16 other sports icons as they posed for a centennial photo. Woods calls it "one of the greatest moments in sports history," but he adds, "] personally felt uncomfortable. I didn't think my accomplishments should have had me in there yet."